Although Washington state is known for being innovative when it comes to death care options, most of those options aren’t immediately available here in the Methow.

So for those of us that do live in this remote spot, what are the environmental costs of the options we have available? Let’s take a look.

Since we’ll be comparing apples to oranges in a few places, we’ll compare these options in terms of equivalent gallons of gas burned.

We’ll also make these assumptions:

  • All distances are calculated from Twisp
  • 20 mpg for the van or truck used to transport the body
  • A locally made pine box or cotton shroud is used where necessary (fairly negligible carbon footprint)

Traditional Burial

Traditional burial produces about 250 lbs. of carbon, the equivalent of about 12.8 gallons of gas.
(We used this handy EPA calculator to make that conversion.)

We also have to include a round trip to Omak to prepare the body (3.5 gallons).

However, there are additional costs to traditional burial that can’t be adequately measured by CO2 emissions:

  • Embalming fluid is carcinogenic: it contains formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene. This exposes funeral care workers to toxins unnecessarily, and eventually leaks into the ground.
  • Many caskets use valuable hardwoods and metals, such as copper and bronze. These are used once and buried.
  • Underground vaults are either made of concrete and steel or plastic. Their only purpose is to prevent graves from sinking in, making cemetery lawns easier to mow, and allowing graves to be closely spaced.
  • Caskets and vaults leach iron, copper, lead, zinc, and cobalt into the ground.

Total: 16.7 gallons (but many additional environmental costs)

Cremation

Different sources give different estimates on the amount of CO2 released during cremation—anywhere from 140 to 600 pounds.

Let’s use the highest estimate, 600 lbs. That’s roughly 30.6 gallons of gasoline.

Now we’ll need two round trips to the crematorium in Omak–once to drop off the body and once to deliver the ashes. At 70 miles per round trip, that’s about 7 more gallons.

There are additional environmental costs to flame-based cremation, though, such as the release of volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and heavy metals such as mercury.

Total: 37.6 gallons (probably less, but also has additional environmental costs)

Human Composting

For human composting, we’ll need to drive to the closest facility in Seattle twice: once to drop off the body, and once to pick up the compost.  That’s 940 miles total, or 47 gallons of gas.

The composting process itself is said to use 87% less energy than cremation, which is still another 4 gallons.

Total: 51 gallons

Alkaline Hydrolysis

The closest alkaline hydrolysis facility is in Spokane, about 185 miles away.  Assuming two round trips as before, that’s 37 gallons.

The hydrolysis process uses about 1/10th the carbon of cremation, so that adds another 3.7 gallons.

Total: 40.7 gallons

Green Burial

The closest option for green burial, Riverside Memorial Park, is a hybrid memorial park in Spokane (green burial and traditional burial in the same cemetery).

That’s 175 miles one way, and only one round trip is need to transport the body, so 17.5 gallons total.

And better yet, a green burial actually sequesters 25 lbs. of carbon, or the equivalent of 1.3 gallons of gas.

Now we’re down to 16.2 gallons!

But wait… are you having a funeral in Spokane?  How many cars will be driving there?  Suddenly that 16.2 gallons goes way up.

Total: 16.2 gallons, with some caveats

Burial at Sea

Full body burial at sea is available from providers in Bellingham and Ilwaco.

A round trip to Bellingham is 532 miles, or 26.6 gallons. 

A 6 nautical mile round trip at sea (the minimum distance for this trip) uses about 3 gallons.

Assuming there is no funeral (that is, more people making round trips to the coast), this is surprisingly green, even with the trip to Bellingham.

Also, I suspect this option probably sequesters the same amount of carbon as green burial, but I can’t back that up with any sources.

Total: 26.5 gallons (possibly 1.3 gallons less due to carbon sequestration)

Body Donation to Science

The closest facility for body donation is UW Medical in Spokane, with a roundtrip cost of 17.5 gallons.

Bodies are typically cremated afterwards, which adds another 30.6 gallons (but this estimate is probably high; see above).

Total: 48.1 gallons if no ashes are returned to the Methow

The Winner

So which is the winner? Green burial in Spokane, assuming no one travels there for a funeral. But as you can see from this (admittedly oversimplified) comparison, there are no easy, black and white answers. Each of these choices has an environmental cost, but we hope this helps you understand your options.